As practice begins, area football teams start chase for a championship

On the River Hill football practice field Saturday morning, the Hawks weren't thinking much about last season's state championship.

Winning a title in December doesn't matter much come August. Sure it provides motivation, but the rest is up to the Hawks.

"It actually made me work harder over the summer, to put in the extra work to make sure we can get that spot in states," River Hill senior running back-safety Justin Arn said.

Players at Old Mill and Dunbar have the same motivation as the Hawks to get back to M&T Bank Stadium. While River Hill beat a favored Thomas Johnson team, 41-13, in the Class 3A final, undefeated Old Mill won a classic overtime battle with Quince Orchard, 35-34, for the Class 4A title. Dunbar scored the last 24 points of the Class 1A final to beat Perryville, 32-11.

Coaches and players at all three know more about the ups of football season in recent years. Old Mill has won two of the last three 4A titles. The Hawks have won three times in five years, including twice in 2A. The Poets have six of the last eight 1A crowns. They also know the downs can be every bit as motivating.

Last fall, the Hawks weren't favored to win the regional championship, much less the state title. During the regular season, they lost to eventual Howard County champion Atholton, 14-0, but they came back to avenge that in the regional final, 21-12.

"It's definitely easier to be an underdog, especially when you go into those big games like Atholton and the state championship, too," Hawks senior guard-defensive end Justin Nestor said. "Going into those games, nobody expects you to win and when you do, it's the best feeling in the world. This year it's different, because when we come out they're always going to go, 'Defending 3A state champions.' It'll feel good, but at the same time, you've got to defend your title, you've got to get back there because you want to win it again."

The Hawks know that after losing the regional final, the Atholton players' motivation comes from that underdog perspective and it drives the Raiders just as hard.

"Everyone gets motivated differently," Raiders senior center Zach Plotkin said. "I don't think just because you've won it before it means you want it any less. Just because River Hill won it last year, they're not going to let up. We just have to work the hardest. Our coaches are always saying whenever you're taking a play off, someone else in the state is working harder than you, so there's never a time to take a play off or cut something short, because you want to be the best."

That underdog motivation was at work Saturday at Catonsville and Poly, too. Both teams went unbeaten into the playoffs. The Comets lost to Old Mill in the state semifinal, 49-20, after beating the Engineers, 28-18, in the regional final.

First-year Engineers coach Larry Webster Jr., an assistant on last year's team, has no doubt his team is motivated.

"They were two games away from being in the state championship game. I think that's motivation in itself, to get a taste of a championship run but not finish it off," Webster said.

At Catonsville, second-team All-Metro running back DeAndre' Lane said the Comets started talking about this season on the bus home from Old Mill last November.

"It's been on my mind ever since it happened," said the senior, who has committed to Maryland. "It's great motivation for this year. We don't want to feel that again."

Still, Lane said Saturday that the first day of practice hasn't changed much since last season.

"It's really nothing different," said Lane. "We've got to come out here and do what we have to do and work with what we've got. You've got to be humble, go out there and not talk too much, just let your actions do the talking for you."

While expectations may be high on the team, around school and in the community, the coaches and the players know it's a whole new year and anything can happen.

Last season, the Comets had the best record in school history, first undefeated Baltimore County season and first regional title, and coach Rich Hambor said his players want to build on that but they know it won't be easy.

"The kids coming back, I think that they know what it takes to make that happen, that it's not just going to fall together," Hambor said. "People are going to be coming for us after last season and the kids just know they can have a whole other first, to do it again, so I think they remember what they learned but want to make their own statement as well."

At Dunbar, coach Lawrence Smith remembers his second season as head coach, 2008, when his players did not have such things in perspective.

After the Poets went undefeated in 2007 and won their second straight Class 1A title, they returned a talented, veteran team led by senior Tavon Austin, the state record holder for career points, touchdowns and rushing yards.

"When Tavon and them came back, they felt we were invincible. We had seven or eight [Division I players] on that team, virtually the whole team returning. Everyone was saying that was one of the best teams ever assembled and we came back in 2008 and lost the first game against Gwynn Park," said Smith, whose team did go on to win a third straight state title.

"You've got to understand when you're coming off a championship, you're not the hunter, you're the hunted," said Smith. "You have to keep the kids focused. They've got to understand they're a state champion football team, so everyone wants to be where they are and they have to get humble again."

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